The following review has spoilers for last weekend’s premiere episodes of Work in Progress Season Two.
“I think it’s difficult for everyone acknowledging whatever trauma of whatever form you’ve been through in your life is enough to fracture you in the ways that you’re fractured,” co-host Sarah Marshall mused in an episode of her podcast You’re Wrong About. “You can look back on your life and be like wow I have all of these issues and they came from what the true crime books would call an idyllic American childhood… we are the way that we are because we’re humans and we’re fragile and we have a hard time with intimacy and loving each other and accepting ourselves and that’s just the human condition. You don’t have to have been roasted on a spit by Satanists in order to just have a hard time being a human being.”
I kept thinking about this quote as I watched the second season premiere of Work in Progress. It’s been a year and a half since we left Abby McEnany’s semi-autobiographical queer dyke standing in the snow — suicidal, rejected, having just hurt the person she loves. But here we are picking up soon after and she’s mostly doing alright. She got promoted, her best friend Campbell (Celeste Pechous) moved in with her, and she’s looking for a new therapist. “Life just got in the way of me killing myself,” she tells one of the many candidates.
If the first season was a spiral, the second seems to be about the mundanity of doing okay. And like the first season, its humor, its pathos, its power is found in its casual, low-key specificity.
Work in Progress is unique in its focus on Abby — one need only watch Showtime’s previous timeslot to recognize the rarity on TV of a fat butch dyke whose ex is a non-binary trans man. But it’s also unique in its insistence that Abby’s life is enough, that her story alone is worthy of a television show.
The first episode of the new season checks back in with Abby. We see her in several new therapists’ offices. We see her at work and with her sister and with her friends. And we even learn from King (Armand Fields) that her now ex Chris (Theo Germaine) is getting top surgery, though he and Abby are no longer speaking. But it’s the second episode that deepens this new season, offering us a journey through Abby’s past.
Starting with therapist #1, we follow child Abby (Shaya Harris) as she learns how to cope with her anxiety and OCD. (Yes, this season has swapped dwindling almonds for increasing shrinks.) She’s a fairly normal kid despite her eccentricities. She moves a lot for her dad’s job, but she always seems to find friends. She’s fat and gay and precocious but the bullying she receives is minimal. And while, to quote one of the therapists, “her brain works differently,” she finds support in a feminist mom who not only takes her to these various therapists but talks her down each night with a soothing repetition of OCD-countering affirmations.
These first two episodes manage to find plenty of humor in bad therapists — and Abby’s neurotic dismissal of good ones — but most of this episode is spent with a great therapist: #4 Dr. Oh (Helen Joo Lee). She’s patient and understanding and nonjudgmental and provides Abby with her primary coping mechanism of journaling. Through her we see that while therapy isn’t a cure, it can provide support. Abby has so much support.
But she doesn’t have her father. He’s not dead or abusive or even all that mean. He just works a lot and is emotionally distant. He’s just the reason Abby always has to move. This is enough to build resentment. This is enough for a fragile, mentally ill queer kid to feel lost.
We talk a lot about how the history of queer representation is tragic. We also talk about how to counter that tragedy the community is eager for conventional happy endings. But the real counter to capital T Trauma isn’t Joy — it’s lower case t trauma. Maybe you think Abby hasn’t experienced a life that justifies her bad behavior. But she doesn’t behave badly because of some tragic backstory. She behaves badly because she’s human and sometimes humans behave badly. Because of trauma, because of mental illness, but also just because.
I love Abby because of this bad behavior as much as I love her for being funny and affectionate and sharp. I love that this beautiful exploration of mental illness and queer community is back on our screens. I love how we’re all imperfect, but trying our bests to get better, every episode, every season, of our complicated little lives.